Five performances of the Wondrous Tales of the Whiteball Tunnel took place in St.John’s Church, Wellington, from Wednesday to Saturday last week, writes James Bradnock, who took part in the play.
In a cast numbering nearly fifty, ranging in age from nine to seventy five and in experience from none to a lot, it would be invidious to single out any individuals, but I am going to do so anyway, referring to only two. Those who don’t get a mention should not feel slighted – every single actor contributed memorably to the whole.
The difficulties of combining and dramatising two such different stories as those of the navvies who built the Whiteball Tunnel in the early 1840s, and Odette who lived above it before and after the second world war, cannot be over-stated. Nick Brace managed it with wit and humour, sensitivity and a lively feel for the characterful and dramatic possibilities within each story.
However, the success of the piece rested from the outset on the shoulders of the Master of Ceremonies, Nick White, and his perfectly judged black and white whirlwind (and a fine voice to match) involved the audience at every point in both stories, from the manic enthusiasm of his introduction to the touchingly quiet simplicity of his final line about Odette’s wish to return to her children and to Whiteball – “That is just what she did”. A masterly performance.
Abbie Turner played Odette. At every stage in her eventually harrowing story, she looked the part, and she touchingly conveyed her love for her children and for Whiteball. That her gentle voice, masked by a convincing French accent, did not always reach the farthest corners of the venue perhaps rather lessened the impact of what must undoubtedly have been a feisty personality.
The Church had been transformed in the preceding week, with three screens and a platform/stage at the West end and a scaffolding arch across the centre of the nave. The audience faced inwards from either side, or westwards from the chancel. The action of the two stories used the height, length and width of the building to great effect, and though the pillars present difficulties with sight-lines and clarity and audibility of speech, these were largely if not wholly overcome by the energy and commitment of the cast and the skilled direction of Nick Brace who wrote the script and composed and accompanied the songs on his guitar.
Richard Fox, who researched much of the history of the building of the tunnel, points out that the project was borne out of Actiontrack’s “Brunel Celebration” at Nynehead as long ago as 2006. It involved both Forkbeard Fantasy and TakeArt in the preparation and production of the show. Research,especially into the construction of the tunnel, and workshops into Odette’s history, involved many individuals and latterly ten primary schools from in and around Wellington. The rehearsals tookplace in the Quaker Meeting House, Wellington Arts’ Centre and Courtfields School Hall, only moving into St.John’s for the first time on the Sunday of the week of performances. All credit therefore to all involved for the high standard achieved.
And it was a high standard. The Foley Band (what a stunning outfit they are!) were led by Chris Britton and Ed Jobling, while the excellent lighting was designed and operated by a team led by Nathan Stevens. These important elements of sound and light played a full part in framing and metaphorically and literally illuminating the two stories, while the musical band, led by Nick Brace, accompanied the singing with stylish skill.
The aim to create a community-based drama was ambitious, and would have been fully realised had some four of the primary schools not been withdrawn from the performances on Friday evening and Saturday owing to fears that some of the children might be adversely affected by the historically accurate scene involving an assault on a young woman who came to find her navvie husband at Whiteball. I personally feel that such fears were entirely unjustified, and that while undoubtedly disappointing the children who were prevented from performing following months of preparation, the MC’s claim at the beginning of the show was fair, and should have been heeded:
“Nothing can harm you here….” This was an opportunity lost, which was a shame for those prevented from sharing in the excitement and justified sense of worthwhile achievement generated throughout the project and appreciated by audiences totalling around 1000 people across the five perfomances.